Monday, March 30, 2009

25 Years Ago....

...yesterday, the Baltimore Colts ceased to exist. The details of that fateful day and what led to it are well-documented. Just a view of those pictures of the Mayflower trucks moving the franchise to Indianapolis and a Baltimore sports fan can recite those details like they can remember the last days of a relationship with a wonderful ex-girlfriend (or boyfriend if you're a lady).

First, as is the case with any ex-lover, you remember the good times. Johnny Unitas. The 1958 NFL Championship Game. Raymond Berry. Art Donovan. Lenny Moore. Gino Marchetti. Alan Ameche. "Mad Dog" Mike Curtis clobbering some hippie who dared cross his path. Tom Matte's wristband. Super Bowl V. Bert Jones. Roger Carr. Ted Marchibroda. Even when the memories were negative, like Super Bowl III and "The Ghost To The Post" game, they remain special for reasons good and bad.

Then come the really bad memories. Robert Irsay's purchase of the team in 1972. General Manager Joe Thomas coldly shipping Unitas to San Diego. Irsay's hideous and callow trading of John Elway to Denver. The half-empty stadium. "Irsay Sucks." Irsay's overtures to Tampa, Jacksonville, Phoenix and Indianapolis. The eminent domain bill. And finally, the infamous midnight ride. Mayflower moving trucks taking the team to Indianapolis under cover of snow and darkness. Of the great Baltimore Colts sneaking out of Owings Mills in the middle of the night like some kind of repo man.

Then, the aftermath. Baltmo Mayor William Donald Schafer practically breaking into tears. The failed expansion effort in 1994. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue telling the city it should build a museum instead of a football stadium.

Here's about where I come in. You see, on March 29, 1984, I was 5 years old. Pretty much my entire youth was spent without a team I could truly call my own. Having been born in Westminster, about 15 miles outside Baltimore, the city is in the blood. I spent most of my early years watching the Redskins, a team yes, but not MY team. The first team I could call my own wasn't even an NFL team and they are largely forgotten these days.

In 1994, the Baltimore CFL Colts (as they were briefly known) started play and they were MY team. Besides being damn good (they played in the CFL's Grey Cup game twice, winning it all in their second and final season over Doug Flutie and the Calgary Stampeders) the CFL Colts were a cult phenomenon in Baltimore, especially that first season. Fans packed the old, lovable dump known as Memorial Stadium to cheer on a team that wasn't the NFL but was close enough. I got my first taste of Irsay haterade that first year when the NFL and the Indianapolis team wouldn't let Baltimore's CFL franchise call itself the Colts. For what reason I had no idea (something about copyright infringement even thought the team differentiated itself by the CFL in the middle) but in my 15 year old mind, I said "Fuck Irsay, Fuck Tagliabue and Fuck the NFL." It was a sentiment that was shared by everybody. That first year, the CFL team called itself the "Baltimore CFLers" as it didn't have a nickname. But that didn't stop team owner Jim Speros from playing up the Colts heritage, complete with the old Colts Marching Band (which never broke up despite not having a team), famous cheerleader Leonard "Big Wheel" Burrier and the nice touch of the PA announcer always saying "Your Baltimore CFL...." to which the crowd would respond "COLTS!!!!"

I remember those old CFL guys much the same way older fans remember the Colts. Mike Pringle. Tracy Ham. Shar Pourdanoush and Neil Fort - 750 lbs of offensive linemen. O.J. Brigance, whose number, 57, I would wear as a high school hockey player. Alvin Walton. Carl Anthony. And of course the immortal Donald Igwebuike, the team's African kicker that first year. I remember being on edge during the 1994 Grey Cup playoffs, especially the conference finals game in the subarctic temperatures of Winnipeg. Then there was the Grey Cup game itself against the British Columbia Lions, who were playing in front of their home fans in Vancouver. It looked like the CFLers were going to pull it off, right in the Canadians back yard. But Lions kicker Lui Passaglia, who was 700 years old I think, kicked a game-winning field goal to break our hearts.

The next year, the team, renamed the Stallions, stormed through the CFL, crushing teams with a punishing running attack led by CFL MVP Pringle. The Stallions would become the first, and only, U.S.-based team to win the Grey Cup. But by that time, news that Art Modell was bringing the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore overwhelmed the Stallions victory and they quietly left for Montreal to become the newest version of the Alouettes.

Of course, the Ravens took over in 1996 and we've lived fairly happily ever since. It was a rough go for the team at first. Nationally, Modell was raked over the coals for moving the Browns out of Cleveland and even fans in Baltimore felt dirty about taking somebody else's team the same way Irsay took the Colts. But at least Cleveland got to keep its name, its colors, its history and its records. The Baltimore Colts were and still are, in some form of football pergatory. The records in Indianapolis, the players refusing to acknowledge the Indianapolis franchise.

I guess if I were to mark the official date of the final ascendancy of the Ravens as THE team in Baltimore and the ultimate burial of the Baltimore Colts, it was Saturday, January 13, 2007. On that day, Indianpolis came to town to play the Ravens in the playoffs. The hype and hysteria of that game was unprecedented, even compared to the Super Bowl the Ravens won in 2000. Quite frankly, the behavior of us Ravens fans, including myself, was pretty crass and juvenile. Like a spurned lover barging into the bar where an ex is for no other reason than to tell them to rot in hell. We were so prepared to jeer and boo Indianapolis, to get our ultimate revenge for Irsay's crimes in 1984, that we forgot to stand behind the team we have now.

Any Ravens fan knows what happened next. Steve McNair stunk, Brian Billick's playcalling stunk and the Ravens lost 15-6. I'm not sure I've ever been more depressed than after that game. I just wanted to get drunk and forget it ever happened. But a strange thing happened, at least to me. In my mind, the Colts ceased to exist. Oh sure, I was pissed off to see Indy guys like Tony Dungy and Dwight Freeney on ESPN's special of the '58 Championship Game. But in 2007, when Indy came to Baltmo again, I didn't think about Irsay, the Mayflower trucks or any of that stuff. Indy is just another team to me. No different than Oakland, Minnesota, Houston or Atlanta. We Ravens fans have a new arch-enemy in the Pittsburgh Steelers. We have an exciting team coming off a tremendous playoff run. We finally have a franchise QB and the face of the franchise, Ray Lewis, will spend his entire career here and then get a statue to match with Unitas'. We've got a lot to be thankful for as Ravens fans. To keep up with the girlfriend/boyfriend analogy, the Ravens are our lady now and she's damn good. The Colts were great, they were first, but now she's gone forever, married to somebody else and she's not coming back. Arrivederci, auf wiedershein and goodbye.

Ed. Note: Here is some other coverage of the 25th anniversary of the move from the Baltimore Sun. Sun reporter Ken Murray was there. David Steele says things worked out just fine for Cleveland, Baltmo and Indy. And Childs Walker says the move was good riddance to bad rubbish.

Just for posterity and to show how big a train wreck Bob Irsay was as an owner, here is this epic Sports Illustrated piece from 1986. When people ask the difference between Irsay and Modell, I tell them that Modell was just a greedy businessman while Irsay was a true scumbag.

Also, here is a YouTube clip that ESPN put together before the 2007 Ravens-Indy playoff game.

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